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'This feeling is much better'

Vermeil thrilled to be on winning side in a Super Bowl

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Posted: Monday January 31, 2000 12:59 AM

  Dick Vermeil Rams head coach Dick Vermeil became the oldest coach to ever win a Super Bowl title. AP

By Jim Litke, AP Sports Writer

ATLANTA (AP) -- To know how sweet it is, remember from how far back Dick Vermeil came. And how close he came to going back there again.

People who think old coaches can't learn new tricks -- one or two, anyway -- didn't see Vermeil when the game ended with the Tennessee Titans out of time and a yard short of forcing overtime.

Vermeil was so calm at that moment, he almost looked scary. In that same situation, in his last go-round as a coach, that kind of cool was beyond his reach.

"When the ball went in the air, I was going to get on the phone," Vermeil recalled. He was planning to call up offensive coordinator Mike Martz and have him script the first series of plays for the extra period.

St. Louis linebacker Mike Jones made sure that wasn't necessary. The ball that Vermeil watched so intently went from Titans quarterback Steve McNair to receiver Kevin Dyson at about the 3-yard line, but Jones expertly wrestled Dyson to the ground at the 1. At that moment, Vermeil let a torrent of emotions go.

"I've been in the other locker room," he said after the Rams' 23-16 win was in the books. "I've been in the Super Bowl and lost, so I know how it feels. And believe me, this feeling is much better."

Click on the image for a larger version.  

Vermeil's word is fine, but to understand exactly how much better, remember his actions the last time he got to the Super Bowl. That was in 1981, almost an entire career ago.

Vermeil was coaching the Eagles back then, one of the NFL's ambitious young Turks. A relentless worker, he took over in 1976 and immediately started driving the team as hard as he drove himself. After two losing seasons, they carried him to the playoffs as a wild-card entry in their third, the NFC divisional playoffs the next year and the conference championship the year after that.

With Vermeil refusing to take his foot off their necks, the Eagles advanced to the Super Bowl in 1981. There they met a boisterous, curfew-breaking Raiders squad that seemed like the evil twin of the polished, disciplined outfit Vermeil brought to New Orleans.

Not that it did them any good. The Raiders hammered Philadelphia 27-10. In the locker room afterward, with a voice so flat it sent chills down the spine, Vermeil said, "Anyone who says one loss cannot ruin a season never lost a Super Bowl."

"Burnout" was not a word applied to coaches when Vermeil walked away from his job just nine games into the next season. But there was no better way to describe it.

The highs tickled him too much, the lows left him too drained. For far too many months of the year, Vermeil rarely ventured outside his bunker to see what was going on in the rest of the world. Yet once he did, it was just as hard to imagine him going back.

He was close to the game, but with a considerably less-stressful job as a broadcaster. After 14 years on the outside looking in, he decided broadcasting wasn't close enough. Vermeil returned to take the Rams over in 1997, but for all the talk and the outward appearance of a changed man, the differences were not always apparent.

  Dick Vermeil, Kurt Warner Vermeil shared a rare emotional moment with Rams quarterback Kurt Warner after the game. AP

Vermeil still ran tough training camps, tougher practices and full-contract drills as late as Friday of game weeks. His first two seasons ended with the Rams going nowhere, losing 23 of 32 games, and on the edge of a revolt. Four players boycotted the final team meeting of the 1998 season, a message that got Vermeil's attention, he recalled, like a "shot in the back."

But it wasn't just the players who were getting their points across. Vermeil did ease up on practices and off-days, and he took in assistants, notably Martz, to open up the offense. Yet, he was also carefully weeding out the ballplayers who didn't measure up to his work ethic.

And so, when the Rams celebrated Sunday night, it was worth noting that exactly nine guys were left from the roster Vermeil inherited three seasons ago. Everybody else was either one of his guys, or else became one.

"I always had faith in him," quarterback Kurt Warner said. "This is all about winning and everybody shut up this year when we started doing that. He stuck by his players, and went out and got some other guys with character. That's why we've got the chemistry we do on this team."

During the week leading up to the game, Vermeil, now 63 and the second-oldest coach in the league, must have been asked a thousand times whether he had changed his style to accommodate today's me-first ballplayers. He answered them by talking about all the diversions in his life these days, from his grandchildren to his vineyard to just taking Carolyn, his wife of 42 years, to a movie.

And yet, there was no telling just how truthful he was being until everything was on the line. Until that moment Dyson caught McNair's pass and just before Jones wrapped both arms around the Titans' receiver and brought him and Tennessee's last chance to the ground. That moment, when Vermeil's heart must jumped into his throat, and he still had the presence of mind to coolly prepare for what was next - the overtime that never came.

"We made the plays when we had to make them," he said, something that applied to him as well. "And that's why we are world champions."

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